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Wine in Ancient Israel

Wine was the principal beverage of ancient Israel.

Vincent van Gogh, The Red Vineyard (detail), 1888, oil on canvas, 75 x 93 cm. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

According to the Hebrew Bible as well as archaeological evidence, wine was the principal beverage of ancient Israel.

What evidence do we have of wine production in ancient Israel?

According to Num 13, Moses sent out spies to survey the land, and they brought back one cluster of grapes that was too heavy for one man to carry (v. 23). According to the ancient Egyptian tale of Sinuhe, Israel had more wine than water. Excavations at a pre-Israelite site called Tel-Kabri revealed forty large vessels of wine, the equivalent of 3,000 modern bottles. Archaeological surveys have also revealed many winepresses of various types.

Wine became the dominant beverage of ancient Israel because its weather, latitude, and geology all favored wine production. Since Israel had few perennial rivers, the Israelites practiced “dry farming.” That is, rainfall served almost exclusively as the source of irrigation, but there was no rain for half the year, and yearly amounts of rainfall varied greatly. Even so, grapes can be used to make juice and wine without tapping into precious water supplies. Wine making was therefore a fortunate adaptation to the limited natural resources of the land of Israel. Furthermore, because wine improves with age, it could be exported for profit.

The Hebrew Bible mentions other beverages, but none rivaled the popularity of wine. Water was offered to people who traveled in the wilderness. Milk spoiled easily in the heat of the Middle East, and goats (the main source of milk) produced milk for approximately half the year. Grape juice was only briefly available because fermentation occurred quickly in Israel’s warm climate. Beer was produced from barley, a staple of the Israelite diet and one of the seven characteristic fruits of the land of Israel (Deut 8:8). However, beer did not attain the prestige or popularity of wine, because it could only be produced by using great amounts of water. The Hebrew word shekar is often paired with wine (yayin) and may refer to beer or other intoxicating beverages, such as wine made from dates, raisins, or pomegranates (Lev 10:9, 1 Sam 1:15).

What was wine used for?

According to Lamentations, even children drank wine as their everyday beverage: in the dire circumstances that followed the destruction of Jerusalem, they implored their mothers, “where is our bread and wine?” (Lam 2:12). Wine was the necessary component of a decent feast, and many biblical texts associate wine with joyful occasions. According to Ps 104:15, God created wine to “gladden the human heart.” Judges 9:13 tells us that wine makes both gods and humans happy. Ecclesiastes makes the same association: “feasts are made for laughter, wine gladdens life” (10:19). The Hebrew noun “feast” (mishteh) comes from the verb for drinking.

The ritual pouring out of wine was also required for animal sacrifices at the tabernacle in the wilderness and later at the temple in Jerusalem. For each lamb offered in the daily sacrifice, for example, one-fourth of a hin of wine (approximately a quart or liter) was poured out (Num 28:7). Grape juice, which fermented into wine, was one of the first fruits that the Israelite was obligated to donate for priestly consumption (Num 18:12; Deut 18:4).

Nevertheless, wine was not always drunk by everyone in ancient Israel. Priests from the line of Moses’s brother Aaron were obligated to abstain from intoxicants when serving in the sanctuary (Lev 10:9). Nazarites were lay people who temporarily undertook priestly obligations, and the Nazarites vowed to abstain from wine and all grape products (Num 6:1–5). The Rechabites were an Israelite tribe who adopted a peculiar unsettled and nonagricultural lifestyle; they too abstained from wine (Jer 35:6–7).

Finally, the Hebrew Bible repeatedly warns about the danger of intoxication. Noah survived the great flood and was “first to plant a vineyard”; yet, he became drunk and, in his disgrace, lay exposed in his tent (Gen 9:20–27). Lot survived Sodom’s devastation, but his daughters got him drunk and sexually violated him so that he fathered his own grandchildren (Gen 19:30–38). The book of Proverbs associates wine with brawling and foolishness (20:1), mental confusion and hallucinations (23:29–35), and forgetting both one’s obligations and misery (31:1–7).

Wine was the dominant beverage in ancient Israel, and it reflected one way for Israelite farmers to adapt to the land’s limited water resources.

  • Elaine Goodfriend teaches in the Department of Religious Studies and the Program in Jewish Studies at California State University, Northridge. She enjoys writing about the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Law.